It's under the seat, actually; a single-cylinder thumper, put there by Ransom Eli Olds in 1901

Oldsmobile, killed off by General Motors in 2004, is the most venerable of American brands. Its history goes back to 1891, when Ransom Eli Olds built an experimental steam car.

Born in Geneva, Ohio, Ransom E Olds came to Lansing, Michigan in 1880. He wasn't that keen on school, much preferring to work in his father's machine and repair shop, where he experimented with small steam-engines.

In 1887, Olds drove the first automobile to appear in Lansing, an experimental steam vehicle. Inspired, the young man continued to work with steam, gasoline and electric power before forming Oldsmobile, based in Lansing, in 1897. As general manager, Olds was authorised to "build one carriage in as nearly perfect a manner as possible".

Four vehicles were produced that first year. Eventually, Olds produced a gasoline-powered vehicle that seated four persons and could do 18 miles per hour on level ground before settling down to the model that would made him famous - the "Curved Dash" Runabout of 1901.

In the early years of American motoring, the Curved Dash (so named because of its toboggan-like front end) was the most ubiquitous car on the nation's roads. It even inspired a popular song of the day, "In My Merry Oldsmobile". It was also the world's first mass-production automobile built on new streamlined processes, with wheeled carts moving from station to station for the various assembly tasks.

Ford Model T enthusiasts might beg to differ on this point - it depends on your definition of "mass produced" - but this was certainly Olds' principal contribution to the history of the automobile rather the Curved Dash itself.

The car was, at best, a marginal design: a simple buggy (almost of the kind pulled by a horse) with a chassis made of angle-iron. It was powered by a single-cylinder, 1.6-litre engine that only revved to 500rpm - about one chug per telegraph pole passed. Weighing in at 650lbs with its five-gallon tank topped up the Runabout was priced at $650 and capable of some 40mpg.

The Oldsmobile was marketed as a car of the people. In advertising copy, the company compared it to horses rather than with other cars. Steered by a tiller and started by a crank, the Curved Dash had rear brakes only and modest performance: with just 7bhp (or four, according to other reports), it had less output than many of today's sit-down petrol lawnmowers.

Still, with its tall, 3in-wide wooden artillery wheels and ample ground clearance, it was ideal for America's still unforgiving roads: the US Mail used the Curved Dash as its first mail trucks for this reason. The design was also built under licence in Germany as the Polymobil and the Ultramobil.

Despite the considerable setback of a fire at its Detroit waterfront factory, production quickly got into its stride; 2,100 were sold in 1902 and 5,000 in 1904. By then, the Curved Dash had begun to grow into a bigger two-cylinder car. And by the time Oldsmobile became part of the General Motors group in 1908 (the second to join, after Buick), the firm was producing cars of up to eight litres capacity.

As the motoring public rapidly gained a taste for power, the Curved Dash fell out of favour. But it was always fondly remembered for its reliability - unlike many early cars - even if it was more suited to short-distance urban driving than long runs.

The Curved Dash did, however, complete a number of long-distance reliability trials, including one from San Francisco to New York in 1903.

In 1904, Ransom Olds sold out to General Motors to start a new company called REO (his initials). He felt that Oldsmobile was turning its back on the popular market the Curved Dash had pioneered.

The founders of Buick and Chevrolet also chucked in the towel early in proceedings, but only Olds - a driven personality, given to sleeping in his car - went on to form another firm.

Olds died in 1950, having watched the firm he started become one of America's leading makes, pioneering affordable automatic transmission and the use of chrome on its cars.

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